Thursday, 27 September 2012

Harsh Realities

I'm new to this lark - so the whole business of promoting a book is a revelation.
I've seen it from the other side, of course, as a programme editor. Now, it's my turn to be output fodder.
I suppose anyone who's ever written a book, especially one that has six months' worth of research in it as Stumbling Over Truth has, just wants to get it out there and people to read it. All of it ... and (totally unrealistically) with the same weight on every word that you placed there when you wrote it.
But, of course, delivering the manuscript is only the start of it. Nor is the boxes of freshly minted book arriving in the publisher's office the end of it.
Maybe there'll be a serialisation? Not for Stumbling Over Truth, sadly, so you'll have to buy it to read it. But you know there'll be the round of signings and panel discussions and media interviews. Reviews and, you hope, a bit of a buzz on blogs and Twitter.
But most of all, you want people to read it.
An odd kind of book
Of course, Stumbling Over Truth is a slightly odd kind of book. It's part personal account - why and how I put Andrew Gilligan on air on 29 May 2003 with Dr David Kelly's allegations that the government's September 2002 dossier had been "sexed up".
It's part an almost historical account, derived from the mass of government documents released and leaked over the past decade, of how the September dossier was written ... an account that's some considerable distance from the conclusions Lord Hutton came to in January 2004.
And it's part a political book. An account from the inside of what it was like to be on the receiving end of New Labour's obsessive exercise in "truth creation" - Peter Mandelson's phrase, not mine - for the best part of a decade.
The three parts are linked, honest. But however odd your book might be you want people to read it.
Many different approaches
Of course, any book that touches on the Iraq war, Tony Blair etc is launched into a world where most people already know what they think and aren't likely to have their opinions changed by any new account ... even one that contains information they hadn't been able to consider before.
And so it was that Blair ultra-loyalists attacked me even before Stumbling Over Truth had been published - criticising the book they imagined I must have written rather than the one I actually had.
One review was more about the reviewer than the book - though thinking about it, many reviews often are. And one journalism professor seemed to think I was too close to events to have written the book in the first place - a slightly bizarre argument that, I confess, I struggle to understand.
Then the panel discussions. One was a little too "free flowing" and, in the end, not much to do with the book; another was very much tighter but still seemed to me to focus on the parts of the book that were the least important and interesting.
Something similar was true of the interviews.
The chunkiest, with Steve Hewlett of BBC Radio 4's The Media Show - it's due to be broadcast on Wednesday 3 October at 1630 - focused largely on my decision to broadcast Dr Kelly's allegations, the management of Andrew Gilligan and the BBC's perception of the row with Alastair Campbell.
All interesting stuff and new - some of this is the evidence that Lord Hutton decided not to hear. But it's almost impossible now to separate it from hindsight. I tried very hard to do that in the book but it took a lot of context and background, the kind of thing that can never really make it into an interview by virtue of the simple fact that a book chapter is several thousand words, an interview several hundred.
Pity, too, that we never touched on the real meat of the book - what Lord Hutton could have discovered about Dr Kelly's allegations had he been more curious. And what it was that motivated Dr Kelly to blow the whistle on the September dossier to several journalists.
More to come
More interviews today and next week - two with non-UK broadcasters whose audiences, my hunch is, have even less background from the time than British viewers and listeners. Not quite sure how I'll deal with that. One thing is certain - the fine detail, the arguments over the precise use of words is almost certain to be dulled.
Can't be helped.
The big lesson from all of this is, I suppose, the obvious one.
As you write a book, you sculpt and shape your prose to say as precisely as you can exactly what you mean. You balance its parts to try to indicate what you think is most important and what's less so. And you try to build some kind of narrative, make connections that you hope are revealing.
But as you read one, the author's careful phrases - whole chapters, indeed - fly by barely noticed. You bring all your own preconceptions to the words on the page and those preconceptions prove as resistant as you choose them to be.
For you, the author, much of what you wanted readers to take away they leave behind and those with the will to do so raid the odd sentence and paragraph and give them a meaning the opposite of everything you intended.
And you wonder why you bothered, wondering at the same time what your next book is going to be about.  

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Are we nearly there yet?

Are we nearly there yet?
And so, I guess it will go on ... (are we nearly there yet).
Here's what John Rentoul has replied to my reply to his reply to my book that hasn't been published yet and which he hasn't read but promises to:
"For those who do not remember, Gilligan made three allegations in the scripted version of his report on 29 May 2003 -
• that the dossier was, in words attributed directly to Gilligan’s source, “transformed in the week before it was published, to make it sexier”;
•that this transformation “took place at the behest of Downing Street” – Gilligan’s words paraphrasing his source, and elaborated by him in the Mail on Sunday, 1 July 2003, putting Alastair Campbell’s name in his source’s mouth;
•the forty-five minutes statement, in words attributed to Gilligan’s source, “was included in the dossier against our wishes, because it wasn’t reliable; … we believed that the source was wrong. Most people in intelligence weren’t happy with the dossier, because it didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward”.
John goes on to remind us that:
 "The Hutton inquiry found that the dossier was not “transformed” in the last week. Nor was it true that “most people in intelligence” were unhappy either with the forty-five minutes point or with the dossier generally. The intelligence services corporately, in the form of the Joint Intelligence Committee, approved the dossier and approved the wording of the forty-five minutes point, however much a few individuals at a lower level, including David Kelly, may have disagreed with its inclusion."
Where to start?
I know it's hard ... but look, let's try to deal with what is ... not what we'd like to be.
In the last week of the dossier's production, the JIC's downbeat conclusion was dropped (a Downing Street staffer first suggested this, followed by an FCO spin doctor - suggestions finally "agreed to" by Alastair Campbell, as he records in his diary).
At the same time, Campbell and Blair decided to add a foreword, drafted by Campbell, which was significantly more alarming than the excised conclusion. Sadly, for those who would deny it, the documentation is unequivocal that this "sexing up" (if no other) happened in the last week of the dossier's production.
Meanwhile, in that last week the intelligence analysts were trying as hard as they could to get the 45 minute claim taken out of the dossier or, if that wasn't possible, to ensure that the reservations they and others in intelligence had about it were included alongside the stark claim.
Other "transformations" in that last week included changes to the text made at Jonathan Powell's and David Omand's suggestions and the excision of the word "programmes" from the dossier's title, "transforming" it from "Iraq’s Programmes for Weapons of Mass Destruction" to "Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction".
All these changes - made at Downing Street's behest - happened after the JIC members had "silently" signed off the text of the dossier ... that's to say, they never met as a body to approve the text. That text was circulated on the understanding that members would cry foul if there was anything there to which they objected.
They didn't object. But as it happens, the man who mattered most - Sir Richard Dearlove - cared little about the actual wording of the dossier - he made that clear from the outset. Indeed, he delegated the final read of the text to a subordinate.
He cared principally, and quite rightly, that nothing in the dossier should jeopardise his agents or operations.
Contrary to John's assertion, he thought the wording was a matter for the Prime Minister, his staff and the JIC chairman, John Scarlett.
Irrespective of Lord Hutton's conclusions - and I explain at length in the book why he was mistaken - the only facts we have argue strongly that the dossier was, as Dr Kelly alleged "“transformed in the week before it was published, to make it sexier” and that "transformation ... took place at the behest of Downing Street".
Fine to believe that was the right thing to do - not so fine to pretend it didn't happen and that what Dr Kelly told Gilligan and others was wrong.
As to the 45 minute claim, Dr Kelly reflected to a number of journalists - not just Andrew Gilligan - the view throughout the intelligence community that the 45 minutes claim "wasn't reliable". We now know beyond argument that Dr Kelly was correctly reporting what everyone in intelligence, from Sir Richard Dearlove down, knew of the claim's limitations.
The JIC drafting team struggled with the intelligence analysts through several iterations of the wording of the claim - but in the end, the decision was made to include a cropped version of the intelligence in a wording that gave the public no hint of those limitations.
And those who decided to do that knew what they were doing - again, anyone is at liberty to think it was the right thing to do but not to assert that it didn't happen.
Now ... this is getting really rather dull and I'm getting slightly embarrassed at the number of times I'm finding myself saying 'read the book'.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Why you should read the book before you review it

It’s hard to know what to make of John Rentoul’s blog that tells you what to think about my new book and the Blair government’s September 2002 dossier.
Unfortunately, I've never read much of John’s work – though I do follow him on Twitter. From that and from the comments on his blog, I infer he’s got a bit of form when it comes to the former Prime Minister and the war on Iraq.
Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I am that he feels able to tell us what to think about my book without being troubled by actually reading it.
Very few have yet. As I write, the ink is still drying at the printers.
Serious libel
However … I’m intrigued that John calls Dr Kelly’s allegations about the September dossier “one of the most serious libels in political history”. That’s quite a charge which, I’m sure, he can substantiate.
Or perhaps not – as we now know, Dr Kelly was correct in every particular.
John is wrong, too, about more or less everything else he assumes I say in the book. 
Absolutely right
As it happens, I don’t argue that I was only “sort of right" and that "Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were totally wrong”.
I do argue that I was absolutely right to broadcast Dr Kelly’s allegations, though I had no agenda of my own in doing so other than to lift a small corner on the truth of the September 2002 dossier.
As for Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, I think I’ll disappoint a lot of those who want to ‘prove’ both were "war criminals" who “lied” to take the country into an “illegal war” etc etc.
I don’t argue, as did Desmond Tutu, that the case for war was “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction” - I set out the reasons in my previous blog.
John concedes that “Gilligan did not use the l-word” but then ruins what looked like it might become a promising argument by asserting that “he said, in effect, that the Government ‘probably’ lied”.
That phrase “in effect” and others similar have dogged this whole debate.
Everyone thinks they "know" what "in effect" was said.
Contrary to John’s jibe – not worthy of him, I think? – I know exactly what Andrew Gilligan said on air, what he did not and what he intended to.
You’ll have to buy the book to see the full sequence of events – but I was clear that we could substantiate every word of what Gilligan intended to say. The allegations he’d presented to me in his notes and set out in his script – yes, there was a script, by the way.
That script read:
“The first thing you see (in the September dossier) is a preface written by Tony Blair that includes the following words: ‘Saddam’s military planning allows for some weapons of mass destruction to be ready within forty five minutes of an order to deploy them’.
Now that claim has come back to haunt Mr Blair because if the weapons had been that readily to hand, they probably would have been found by now.
But you know, it could have been an honest mistake, but what I have been told is that the government knew that claim was questionable, even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier.”
I would challenge anyone to contest the truth of any of that.
For reasons that only he knows, Gilligan decided to do his 6.07 two-way without that script in front of him. It was an error – a huge error. His formulation of the allegation that I knew we could substantiate – that “the government knew that claim was questionable, even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier” – became mangled:
 “the Government probably knew that the forty-five minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in”.
John writes that “this is, of course, er, not consistent with the facts, and no “probably” about it.” Unfortunately for him, it's entirely consistent with the facts.
Gilligan's mistake was not that he made this inference - it was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable inference to draw from what Dr Kelly had told him. Had he said "I think that the government probably knew ..." he would have been on much firmer ground.
His mistake - and it was a very, very serious one - was to attribute his inference to Dr Kelly. The inference, however, we now know was in line with all the facts.
I think John knows that. He certainly should.
Questionable intelligence
We now know for certain that the Head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, the Chief of Defence Intelligence, Sir Joe French and the Chief of the JIC Assessments Staff, Julian Miller, all knew the 45 minutes claim was “questionable” – that it was single sourced, without a secure reporting line and, the analysts in Sir Joe’s service thought, both “wrong” and applicable only to battlefield weapons and not WMD.
We know, too, that the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy and Communications, Alastair Campbell, had read the JIC assessments that went into the dossier – or at least, that’s what he told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee towards the end of June 2003.
Is the idea that those preparing the dossier – including Campbell – didn’t know the claim was at best “questionable” at worst “wrong” plausible?
Is it plausible that Campbell included the claim in his draft of the foreword, unqualified, without knowing its limitations?
Everyone will no doubt come to their own conclusion on both.
As to "creating the truth", I’m surprised that a political specialist like John is unaware of Peter Mandelson’s chilling interview with Katherine Viner of the Guardian back in 1997
That’s a pity. I commend it to him - there he would find that it was Mandelson not I who coined the phrase “create the truth”.
It might well be a “media-studies phrase” – I don’t know and I bow to John’s expertise in these things.
Obstruction and concealment
It’s interesting how those who prefer not to be critical of Blair and his case for war now direct our thoughts towards what they term, as John does, “Saddam’s history of obstruction and concealment”.
While that was part of the argument at the time, it was not the part of the case that argued for urgent military action.
That history - and more importantly, by the winter of 2002/3, that present - was open to differential interpretations.
Again, if John hasn't caught up with the UNMOVIC reports of early 2003 (and not the gloss that Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Colin Powell put on them) he should.
Hans Blix reported at the end of January 2003, for example that:
"Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far with UNMOVIC ... access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect ... we have further had great help in building up the infrastructure of our office in Baghdad and the field office in Mosul. Arrangements and services for our plane and our helicopters have been good. The environment has been workable."
Obstruction and concealment? Hmmm.
In any event, Saddam's history was no evidence of imminent threat … Blair’s own Chief of Staff and Foreign Secretary told him as much at the time. The Head of MI6 told me something similar, too, within days of the fall of Baghdad.
Self interest? 
Do I have an “interest in proving that what the Today programme alleged in May 2003 was "essentially" true, as John claims (how DO these journalists look inside others’ minds)?
To be picky for a moment - the Today programme alleged nothing. We reported the allegations of a credible source.
But on the substantive point - no, I have no interest in proving anything was "essentially" true nor that it was part of some "higher truth". I'm interested in showing only why I knew at the time that Dr Kelly's allegations were both reportable and part of the truth of the dossier.
Gilligan mangled Dr Kelly's allegations in one broadcast and paid the price. Was that good journalism? No. Was that one broadcast defensible? No. But of course, the other twenty or so he made that day followed the script I'd approved and he'd ignored in that one 6.07 two-way. And I stand by the allegations in that script still.
Were Dr Kelly’s allegations “false in every specific”? Well, obviously not – Lord Butler and an army of FOI researchers have left us in no doubt of that.
Was the BBC “anti-war”? Well, I can’t speak for the BBC now, but I know for a fact it wasn't at the time and I'm certain I was neither pro- nor anti-war either … except in the very broadest sense that old men like me should never find comfort in sending the young to die their deaths for them.
Advice to reviewers
Perhaps John will read my book before he writes any more about it.
I hope that when - if - he does he'll find that far from contradicting “by assertion” Hutton and Butler, I give what I believe is a reasoned account of Hutton’s shortcomings while commending Butler, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Intelligence and Security Select Committee and the Public Administration Committee as the common sense they all so evidently were.
I have a feeling he'll be disappointed but am confident his spleen will live to fight another day.
As for whether New Labour had the habit of “creating the truth” – well, he'll have to take that up with Peter Mandelson not me.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Tutu, Blair and the 'L' word

Was Desmond Tutu right to accuse Tony Blair - and George Bush, for that matter - of a "lie"?
It's a question that's at the heart of my new book Stumbling Over Truth, published on 19 September.
**Update - looks like we've reverted to the original publication date; 24 September, the 10th anniversary of the September dossier**
Today - 3 September 2012 - is, as it happens, the tenth anniversary of Tony Blair’s decision finally to publish an “intelligence” dossier showing why he believed Saddam Hussein and his Weapons of Mass Destruction were a clear and present danger needing urgent military attention.
More so than, say, Libya, Iran or even North Korea.
The publication of that dossier, on 24 September, was a key moment in what Desmond Tutu calls:
“the immorality of the United States and Great Britain's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 …” 
Though once the dossier had done its job – grabbing headlines and easing Blair’s passage through the recall of an increasingly sceptical Parliament - it effectively disappeared from view.
We all now know that the September dossier – indeed the whole intelligence/WMD basis of the case for war – was misleading. Saddam had no appreciable WMD.
And we now know it wasn't simply a case of intelligence gathered, assessed, interpreted and presented to the public in good faith turning out to be wrong.
The limitations of the intelligence were known and were a source of tension inside the intelligence community before John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and Alastair Campbell decided to use it as they did in the September dossier and elsewhere in the case for invading Iraq.
The way in which that intelligence was used was misleading, of that there is no doubt.
But was it a "lie"?
A question of faith
Those around Tony Blair between 9/11 and the night of "shock and awe" in February 2003 were struck by the strength of his belief that Saddam Hussein had and was "continuing to develop WMD".
Blair insisted he'd come to that belief because of the intelligence he was seeing - yet it was a belief the Head of MI6 at the time seemed not to share.
But he'd faced down the experts and the evidence before - and had been right to do so. Over Milosevic. Remembering that and seeing the strength of his belief that Saddam had WMD effectively silenced contrary voices, according to some inside Downing Street and the Foreign Office at the time.
It was groupthink in action.
And so, when in late August 2002, Blair decided it was time to share with the public the intelligence he'd found so convincing, those who thought it a bad idea - and there were many - zipped their lips and got on with producing the dossier he needed.
In fact, a dossier had been in production for over six months by then. Several drafts had been written but never published for the simple reason that, according to those around at the time, there wasn't the intelligence to convince anyone who didn't want to be convinced.
Questionable intelligence 
As officials were pulling together the many aborted papers and dossiers that were just "too dull to publish", two pieces of intelligence came into MI6 that seemed, to those who wanted to believe it, evidence that Saddam had an active and growing WMD programme.
But there were problems. Both pieces of intelligence were single-sourced; both had questionable reporting lines; both raised more questions than they could answer; neither gave anything close to a full picture ... and both were eventually withdrawn by MI6 as unreliable. 
One of them – the so-called 45 minute claim, the claim that Saddam’s WMD could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order to do so – was thought by expert analysts in intelligence to be wrong. They thought the ultimate source, a sub-source unknown to MI6, had misunderstood something he'd heard. If the 45 minute claim applied to anything, they thought it could only be battlefield weapons, not WMD.
It shouldn't be in a public dossier they argued, but if it had to be, it should be carefully worded and surrounded with qualifications.
They were ignored. The 45 minute claim, worded less than carefully and shorn of all qualifications was written into the dossier in a way that gave no hint of the original intelligence's limitations. Or that anyone in intelligence thought it might be wrong.
And though MI6 wouldn’t let the second piece of intelligence be used in the dossier, 'C' did allow assertions that relied on it.
In the final week, the dossier lost its downbeat conclusion (written by the JIC team drafting the dossier’s main text) and gained an alarmist foreword (drafted by Alastair Campbell).
Language was hardened following suggestions made in Downing Street; changes made after the spooks had seen the text for the last time.
It was a political, rhetorical dossier dressed up to look like intelligence - as if the imprimatur of those whose trade was treachery gave Downing Street's case a credibility its own reputation could not.  
It was “sexed-up”.
Mens rea
But does that mean Desmond Tutu is justified in saying that Blair’s case for war was “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction”?
I think not. And for that reason, I've never called the dossier or anything in it a "lie" nor accused Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell of "lying".
Nor did Andrew Gilligan in his infamous broadcasts of 29 May 2003, when he reported the concerns of Dr David Kelly. Nor, as far as I’m aware, has anyone in the BBC, certainly not when speaking on the BBC's behalf.
It was much more complex than that. And in at least one important way, very much worse.
Lying requires a guilty mind - a mens rea as the lawyers call it. The liar knows X is true and Y is false - and deliberately chooses to say Y is the truth.
I don't believe that Tony Blair or anyone around him knew that Saddam had no WMD and chose to say that he had. That's what would have been necessary for it to have been a "lie".
What they did know, however, was that the evidence to support the Prime Minister's belief was thin and at best ambiguous. And that what there was was uncorroborated, insecurely sourced, limited, questionable, arguable and, some thought, wrong.
It was no basis on which to persuade a sceptical party and public into supporting something as grave and uncertain as a foreign war.
Creating the truth 
The September dossier, indeed the whole of the government's case for war was no more nor less than what we'd come to expect of New Labour.
It was not a "lie". It was what Peter Mandelson called "creating the truth".
The decision to take a nation to war is the most grave any democratic government can make. Young British men and women shouldn't be placed in harm's way - some sent to their deaths - with anything other than the most sober reflection on all the evidence, carefully and dispassionately presented. That means complete with all its qualifications, doubts and counter evidence. Anything else is rhetoric.
The dossier was rhetoric. The question is, though, whether presenting that rhetoric as "intelligence" was worse than a lie.
Off the hook
There's another problem with the 'L' word, too. It lets those who, like New Labour, "create the truth" off the hook.
It enables Tony Blair to respond that:
“To repeat the old canard that we lied about the intelligence is completely wrong as every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown."
That's true, of course. No sensible analysis has ever shown Tony Blair "lied". Nor was that the allegation levelled by Dr David Kelly and reported by Andrew Gilligan, in spite of Alastair Campbell's efforts to persuade us all that it was
However, substitute for the word "lied" the phrase "created the truth" or "misled the British public about the certainty of the intelligence and the conclusions that could be drawn from it" and most people might well take the view he and those around him are guilty as charged.

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...